Web Analytics

How to Be a 'Tough' Woman Leader

By John Millen 

Over the past couple of years, a long-time friend of mine has invited me to join her table at the annual meeting of Women for Economic and Leadership Development here in Columbus. 

That means it’s me and a few other guys in the midst of some 500 smart, enthusiastic businesswomen. The speakers have been awesome. Last year’s keynote speaker, Carla Harris, Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Morgan Stanley, gave some really great advice for women, and men, on achieving success by differentiating yourself in the workplace.
As an African-American woman on white-male dominated Wall Street, Harris faced unique challenges and learned to position herself in a way that allowed her to thrive while being true to herself.

She offered a wide-range of wisdom. These are three core messages. People loved her third idea as much as I did and I would recommend you seriously considering trying it in your workplace.
1) Be Authentic
Too many people try to be act in a way at work that is not really who they are. This causes anxiety and disconnection. Harris says being your authentic self positions you for success:

  • “You are your own competitive advantage. No one can be you the way you can be you. The last thing you should ever do is to submerge that which is uniquely you.
  • “Anytime that you are trying to behave or speak in a way that is inconsistent with who you really are, you will create a competitive disadvantage for yourself.
  • “If you bring your authentic self to a relationship, people will trust you and trust is at the heart of any successful relationship.
  • “Most people are not comfortable in their own skin, so when they see someone who is comfortable and confident in their own skin, they will gravitate toward you.”

Harris, who also is a highly successful gospel singer, said early in her career she would bristle when her colleagues would tell clients about her singing. She would roll her eyes when they said, “Carla is an amazing gospel singer, with three CDs and four sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.”
She changed her mind when she saw enthusiastic client reactions. Potential clients would ask about her career and whether she would talk to their daughters about integrating business and the arts in their lives. 

A Different Lens
“We ended up having a 15-minute meeting before the meeting,” Harris said. “When I sat down to pitch, they heard me with a different ear, they saw me through a different lens.” These conversations helped her to win business as it differentiated her “from five other investment bankers pitching that IPO.”

From that moment on, Harris said she brought to business “all my Carla Harris’s” -- singer, prayer warrior, golfer, football fan, because you never know who will connect with something you love.
2) Take Risks
A second way to differentiate yourself is by showing you can take risks, Harris said. During challenging times in a workplace, Harris said everyone tells you to keep your head down so you can fly under the radar.

She recommends the opposite. “When everybody else is besieged with fear and everybody else is ducking, you have clear vision to see the opportunity,” Harris said.
“In a difficult environment, it’s time to speak up. The issue with keeping your head down is you submerge your voice and your voice is at the heart of your power. Fear has no place in your success equation.”

She said to ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that can happen? She said you might fail, but failure always brings a gift: experience, and leaders will see you as a person of action, who should be kept around.

(For more articles like this, sign up for Sunday Coffee, my weekly leader newsletter.) 
3) Manage Your Perception

Harris said the important thing she has learned after two-and-a-half decades on Wall Street is, “perception is the co-pilot to reality. How people perceive you will directly impact how they deal with you.
She said that after five years in her career, a senior director told she was smart and hard working, but he didn’t think she was tough enough for the business of Wall Street. Harris was outraged.
A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard and a graduate of Harvard Business School she had overcome significant challenges to land at Morgan Stanley. In her colloquial speech, Harris shouted to the crowd, “You can call Carla Harris a lot of things, but ‘ain’t tough’, ain’t one of them.”
Not 'Tough' Enough
She thought to herself, “suppose he really doesn’t think I’m tough enough?” One can’t be seen as weak on Wall Street. “I decided for 90 days I would walk tough, talk tough, eat tough, and drink tough, use tough in my language.”
It’s important to have consistent behavior and language, Harris said, and to “use this language in your environment, particularly when you are talking about yourself. You can train people to think about you in the way that you want them to think about you.”
Harris had a reputation for being very good at critiquing management presentations, so much so that before company roads shows for a multi-million dollar IPO or stock transaction, her colleagues would ask her to listen to a presentation and give the CEO feedback.
“Next time, after I’d gotten that feedback about not being tough, I said wait a minute, tell me about this guy, is he sensitive, does he have a thin skin? I don’t want to hurt nobody’s feeling, ‘cause you know I’m tough,” Harris said, drawing laughter and applause.
90-Day Challenge
“I kept using this language over and over to describe myself. Sure enough, after 90 days of work, I was behind a group of people, they didn’t know I was behind them.”
She said she heard a VP beating up an associate to make sure they were fully prepared for their meeting:
“We’re going to see Carla Harris, and you know, she’s so tough.”
Carla Harris succeeded in one of the world’s most challenging business environments, Wall Street, by making her authentic self a positive differentiator.
She didn’t need to hide herself -- she let the real Carla Harris shine through.
It may have been tough, but that’s Carla Harris. She’s tough.
Questions for you: 
How are you perceived in your workplace?
Is that perception consistent with who you really are?
Carla Harris recommends an exercise of choosing three adjectives you want people to use to describe you when you are not in the room, because that’s when all of the important decisions are made about compensation, promotion and new assignments. The adjectives should be consistent with the position you seek.

NOTE: If you like this article, sign up for my Sunday Coffee newsletter and get one tip every week to develop yourself and your leadership and communication skills. Click here for quick sign up. 

I previously wrote about a similar exercise: 
Personal Branding: What three adjectives describe you?


Photo Credit: Carla Harris' website

I love listening to

audio books 


I've written hundreds of articles on this site. My secret weapon for learning is listening to books while I'm driving, walking or working out.

By clicking the green button below you'll get a 30-day free trial of Audible to kickstart your own learning.

Happy listening!

John Millen

* We may earn a commission from links on our site. We only offer products and services we know and trust.

Make Better Decisions with Charlie Munger's Mental Models

Dec 02, 2023

How to Avoid Awkward Holiday Conversations

Nov 25, 2023

Lincoln's Lesson for Leaders: Less is More

Nov 21, 2023